Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Genesis/Nemesis of Gerard de Nerval

How obsessed we are by the double - that constant subject of late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century literarature! Think of its echoes back in time, through folklore (the doppelgänger, or doubleganger, should be familiar to everyone reading this); its appearance in the work of so many artists and writers: the constantly shifting self-portraits of Van Gogh, the screams of Artaud, the fraternal twins and dream-like gender/family/racial confusion of Kafka and Meyrink, the Gogolian story of the same name by Dostoyevsky, the mordant 'Man in the Crowd' and bitter, terrifying 'William Wilson' of Poe, etc. - what do all of these point to? Finally, in Gerard de Nerval, where the theme takes on mythopoeic dimensions, in its final apotheosis and entry into 'modern culture' - what does this theme, at last, finally say to us? What does it explain? What horrors does it give voice to - what symptoms does it bleed forth?

But what can Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855) truly offer to us now, standing as we do on the edge of the world, on the edge of forever, with all the answers in our hands? Nerval, who grew up in a time of mass upheavals of fortune, family, nation, and tradition; left without a mother or steadying influence at an early age, gifted with a myth-making talent that was ultimately his downfall...and that elusive, self-created Nerval, walking always in the shadow of the double he had created for himself, with his aristocratic pretensions , his air of pristine, prudish conservatism - the eternal Victorian - separating him from his peers even as he mawkishly invited their patronage; the Nerval of the pre-Boulevard cafes, of the quiet, sleepy Paris and its outskirts, so close to the haven of the countryside which he could never fully claim except in sanatoriums; the Nerval that was forgotten, even by himself - the man of the age, the reaction of his age against the encroachment of the future...

"A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and contemporaries. He may regard the general, impersonal foundations of his existence as definitely settled and taken for granted, and be...far from assuming a critical attitude toward them...yet it is quite conceivable that he may none the less be vaguely conscious of the deficiencies of his epoch and find them prejudicial to his own moral well-being."

"Now, if the life about him, if his own time seems, however outwardly stimulating, to be at bottom empty...if he privately recognizes it to be hopeless, viewless, helpless, opposing only a hollow silence to all the questions man puts, consciously or unconsciously, yet somehow puts, as to the final, absolute, and abstract meanings in all his efforts and activities; then, in such a case, a certain laming of the personality is bound to occur, the more inevitably the more upright the character in question; a sort of palsy, as it were, which may even extend from his spiritual and moral over into his physical and organic part. In an age that affords no satisfying answer to the eternal questions of 'Why?' 'To what end?' a man who is capable of achievement over and above the average and expected modicum must be equipped either with a moral remoteness and single-mindedness which is rare indeed and of a heroic mold, or else with an exceptionally robust vitality."

- Thomas Mann, from The Magic Mountain

As the fragmentation of identity, the melting of the prior solidity of existence, and the decay, collapse, and amalgamation of personalities expands, increases, and grows, where have we, as artists, to turn? With what weapons do we fight? In the fervent declaration of our aims, we are jeered at - 'whose aims?' Who indoctrinated you with them? How did these hopes appear within you? To what model or institution do you owe them? How do you really know they are yours? How can you claim them? Can you justify them - or anything at all? Where is your proof? Where are your memories? As we cry out in defense of our solidarity, the once-impregnable wall of the self, we are assaulted from within: neuroses, anxiety, State and Reality-bred, eat at our hearts and minds, they are the first and last cancer. How can we be sure of our status as inviolate Wills? The voice that you call your own - how do you know that it is truly yours? Would you recognize it if it was taken from you? Reality calls for us to base our personalities on externals; it then removes the externals, inebriates the centers of functioning, isolates, bears down upon originality (who gave you this?), upon creativity, sells souls wholesale - a constant tide pours over the edge of the Abyss: fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, the beautiful, the prosaic, the holy, the profane, the admired, the worshipped, the downcast, the spit-upon, all fall into the river of cheap flesh and are melted together, processed, sent over the side into the sewer of those who could not feel their own mortality. The mouths of reality swallow without ever ceasing, and their propoganda pours forth in a torrential storm of abuse: we drink it in deep, we rub it over our heads and in our eyes, and we see our pale, twisted reflections in its shallowness. Its glaring light truly colors and animates the world. But it is not us, please understand, it is the double at heart, the shadow world, the shadow self or rank and file of other selves. The decadents, the experienced say: Reality does not exist, and life must be held faithfully under the Aegis of Art. As long as life is to be lived as if in a dream, in order for it to not become a night terror, the true artist strives to make his dreams and his obsessive fantasies come 'true'. The Dreamworld must penetrate into Reality, the double must be extinguished in an apotheosis of the true self. And yet, the voices still slur from inside: and from where did these dreamworlds arise?

The Decadent: A Small, Bitter Encomium:

The decadents, of course, realized all of this very early. Turning from pursuits of aesthetic enlightenment, dark hedonism (the relativism where all emotions are cruelly considered only for their effects upon the pale, frail flesh, and things are savored only for the experience they offer the initiate), jaded, cynical beyond belief, in a world-weary cast on fortune's tide and with a wave of dismissal, J.K. Huysmans, the pioneering decadent, turned at last to Catholicism as a sort of resigned retirement, appreciating the religion only for its accoutrements, its externals, the mysteries of its ecstatic, deadly theology. Formerly wallowing in a diabolical, bloody Satanism (if only by proxy), demonology, sexual perversion (later captured much more graphically, on cue from Huysmans, by Henry Miller in his erotic novel Under the Roofs of Paris),the pleasures and morbid terrors of Sade, all the most abominable and wonderful inventions of the human senses, he turns to that ancient dream of the Lamb Christ - he lies on his side among mitres, crucifixes, rosaries, altar cloths, he mouths the Host and considers its bland taste, wonders what that means for the immediacy and import of the philosophies it symbolizes (he craves some exotic spice in his soul-selling). Lastly, he stares straight ahead, meditating on infinity, on the vortexes of space and time. His eyes, filled with the myriad sickening sights of the world, turn at last in desperation to The Light and are blinded, or put out forcefully by his own hands, which betray his overwhelming doubts. Huysmans, it can be said, was consumed by his Double, as he could not realize the close affinities between it and what he considered his 'true self'. Looking in his mercury mirror, he mistook his own image for that of his doppelgänger. Who will pity the man who tries to kill the enemy in himself and who mistakes his own soul for the machinations of the outsider? Can there be any more earnest condemnation of the world than these overwhelmed hedonists turning to religion?

It is a shame that Mallarme, who came (in my opinion) closest to picturing, through a combination of symbolism and obscure metaphor, the rigors of cold infinity itself, that puzzling abstraction, should be paired with the oft-denigrated Huysmans. How many read Huysmans for 'enlightenment' now? No, he is marketed, shamefully, as a soft-core pornographer, an obscure dilettante, in the same class as the effeminate Sacher-Masoch, the vilified Eugene Sue (that first socialist), the distorted, disease-ridden Gourmont (who would never let anyone see his leprous visage), the envious brothers Goncourt and their alcoholic, nymphomaniac maid, etc. It is only Nerval and Mallarme that have escaped the condemnation of this faint praise - and that because they were considered completely obsolete except by the most persistent literary archaelogists.

My own efforts to find suitable translations of Nerval were relatively fruitless as little as five years ago. The only editions I could unearth were completely outmoded 'sensationalist' pieces, fragments, juvenilia, footnotes in other works, masters' theses, odd useless monographs, or personal interpretations and mistaken derivations put out by hidden, underground campus publishing houses. What I could find was often clouded or rendered completely ineffective by the prevailing 'symbolic' interpretation of Nerval's art. The end result was utter frustration on my part. To those who have not experienced the blindness of Academia to those artists They do not consider 'relevant' (and these things change with the seasons, they are a fashion like anything else), all I can say is that be glad you have at least the few works that have not been declared 'unimportant' by the ranks of the 'elite'. It is a miracle we are left with anything - as it is they almost took Melville and Hawthorne from us, if not Poe. How many other works of art have been buried by the Official Hand of Criticism over the years? Once you start searching earnestly for yourself and on your own agenda/plan of education, the result can only be a clinging dread or pernicious nausea when faced with the wholesale destruction we bring down upon those who are no longer considered 'relevant' to the establishment. This may seem like rhetoric to you, but I assure you a few hours of investigation through the nearest library stacks will convince you of the substance of my statements. The image is undeniable: the last dance of all these artists who lived with their eyes on the prize of Immortality through Art, denying themselves their entire lives, hand-in-hand, chained together from force of circumstance throughout eternity with all these self-righteous, judgemental mortals who are burning them into the abyss, into the whirlpool of total extinction. It brings up a few interesting questions, doesn't it?

Besides these minor decadents, to change the subject, the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire, who considered his art to be just one of the many 'holy' pleasures of existence and experience (he was known to furnish his rooms only with bottles of wine and fine works of Latin literature - they shared space on his shelves and equal relevance/reverence in his mind), and who was a distressed, guilt-obsessed, true Catholic at heart, at last grew disgusted with the numbing waves of hashish-influenced monomania that were plaguing his contemporaries and turned back to the reality he had first abandoned in the bottomless depths of his poetry. In the history of French art and criticism, he holds a premier place - there are those, in fact, who trace all of 'modernism' back to this one strange, doom-haunted, exquisitely timely translator of Poe. But you know all of this.

It is interesting and can be seen as deliciously ironic (a joke on History, perhaps) that this Prince of Decadents, the virtual Black Pope and Poet Laureate of disease, filth, death, despair, disillusionment, decay, and poverty would turn out of the hothouse of green carnations, renunciation, resentment, and cloying sentimentality of his contemporaries in order to focus a tested, sharper critical edge on the haphazard events of what was, for him, modern life. And it is decidely ironic that this poet, who gave himself up to degradation and bitterness out of a loss of faith, was turned around by the new horizons of changing aesthetics, and at last re-cast himself in the mold of a conservative champion of artists' rights. In a liberal age, the former liberal adherents are metamorphosized into conservatives as their world order is transcended, and the gestalt/zeitgeist wheel keeps turning. Former demons are unmasked as sad, shallow mummers, and their once-sharp horns lose their edge. Baudelaire, once seen as an outrageous champion of the first Impressionists, is now establishment material. Baudelaire, gazing at the Self that has been secreted by his soul as a defense-mechanism, noticed the plays of mirrors and shade: when he referred to himself, was it the Shadow that took the stage, a reflection of his true inner self, or was it that understanding that could at all times view the Shadow reproduced in the Abyss of endless reflections? However, his double is of the same tribe as our own - he remains relevant because he has not been understood profoundly enough to be destroyed through a counter-movement. He is rejected in turn, like the rest of us: his crises of confidence, pains of faith, and psychological tortures are dulled by the ever-reaping scythe of time, but his works remain, much like Nerval's, and they invite further exploration even as they are covered in the kisses and lackluster interpretations (that slow death) of the pedants and sycophants.

At Last, Nerval and his Shadow:

So now we turn to Nerval himself, that most misunderstood of the 18th-century French poets and writers, for he exists for us here in the English-speaking world as a half-mythical figure in a sort of translingual limbo, a purgatory much like Dante's grove of pagan spirits - a twilight world where historical and artistic figures pass each other either ascending from or descending to oblivion. His star has lately risen, but as of yet there have only been a few academics desperate, couragous or foolhardy (note: I don't think so, this is just the prevailing opinion) enough to yoke the wagons of their careers to it. Meaning: academia has not officially sanctioned the Cult of Nerval, and so I feel all the more justified in breaching the subject. While it is commonly agreed that Nerval, reading from the literature/texts that he left behind or his personal correspondence, did experience a stifling range of psychological/mental problems - schizophrenia being only the most obvious of his postmortum diagnoses - I will say that for me that does not in any way lesson the impact of his work or the value of the important themes therein. If we discounted the work of every artist who was ever suspected of mental illness (or whoever suspected the aberration in themselves), we would be left with very few works of art to appraise or ruminate upon. What is 'sane' art? No, the links between madness, creativity, death, and art are still only understood in the most adolescent fashion: our culture has completely lost the Key to feeling, in its bones, the Divine Right of Art and Madness. What is known, however, is that while Nerval was allowed to be productive and creative (he was in and out of sanitariums/hospitals a good deal - much in the same way as Artaud - and he sometimes would only return to lucidity in order to write) he produced a body of work that has stood the test of time: it remains as relevant and powerful today (if not more so) than it ever was. Nerval's themes are many, but they all seem to form a centrifugal force around the axis of power, identity, dreams and madness, or circle the spaces/landscapes upon which these four ancient human elements battle. The chief cause of madness in Nerval's writing (that is, in the narratives themselves) is the Collapse of the Personality: the entrance of novel power structures, the decay of ancient traditions, the confusion of identity (based on a thousand different factors), the relative view of human life as glimped from the point-of-view of History - (all now recognized aspects of 'modernity') each of these contribute to a fragmentation of the personality and a emotional or spiritual confusion and nausea which is rooted in the individual losing contact with his 'rightful' place in the structure of society, personality, ego or family.

Of course, I hope it will not be lost on you, gentle reader, that it is exactly this dissolution of the Ego, this collapse and decay of the Self, that the Christian self-righteously lusts for in the afterlife, and which he can not help but try to bring into existence here in reality. However, in reality, there is only one true path towards this terrifying goal: man must rid himself of all the 'props' of his Ego in order to renounce the world: i.e., he must reject the world and make it disappear bodily in the smoke and mirrors of Holy resentment, he must destroy this world and bring Nothingness into Reality in order to reach his absolute - which is, of course, for the Christian, a total absence of identity and Ego - in other words, the Void of dreams and eternal forgetfulness, at the right hand of God.

For Nerval, this was his central theme, and in his works the despair of relativity - that absence of concrete particulars or True Absolutes in Life - echoes down the stairway of the last 150 years.We have still not formed any satisfying answers to the questions he poses.

No figure or character is immune to this vertigo and relativistic despair: in his terrifying poem 'Christ on the Mount of Olives', Nerval has the crucified Jesus cry out:

'My friends, have you heard the news? I have touched the eternal vault with my brow; I am to bleed, break and ache for many a day!

Brothers, I misled you: Abyss! abyss! abyss! The god is missing from the altar on which I'm the victim...There is no God! God is no more!'

And yet Nerval's visions were not that far out of the range of his contemporaries, followers, and inspirational fathers: Balzac, the incurable Romantic and self-confessed Mystic (his gnostic 'Seraphita' is difficult to find these days, but worth reading for its concatenation of Swedenborgian vertiginousness and Pseudo-Christian ramblings, along with its descriptions of Norway's land/seascapes), chasing the wives of other men through the back gardens and trap-doors of midnight Paris, finally dropping dead from sheer exhaustion, having produced dozens upon dozens of novels in his 'Human Comedy', including the decidely Hoffmann-esque 'Wild Ass's Skin', a tour-de-force on mortality and fate, akin to Goethe's 'Faust'; the Naturalist and propogandist Zola, who mired Reality in order to present his Utopias in a better light - his novels 'Germinal' and 'The Human Beast' ('La Bete humaine') are prose poems of sheer darkness and despair; especially the latter, with its morbid descriptions of blood-guilt, lust, avarice, drowned corpses and morgues, revenge, etc. (it reads like a horror novel, actually, very close to Poe); then of course we have Lautreamont, with his blasphemous 'Maldoror' (that famous line: 'In the middle of the night, God opened the back door of Heaven...and welcomed a pederast in'), the spiritual father of the Surrealists; Flaubert, whose 'Salammbo' and 'Temptations of St. Anthony' are long, rich opium dreams of desperation, sickness, denial and death; the 'psychological' fright stories and insane visions of Maupassant, etc. In addition, Nerval was a ghost writer for the greedy, adoration-starved Alexandre Dumas, whose novel 'The Count of Monte Cristo' is a Satanic celebration of Revenge of the highest order - it echoes 'Paradise Lost' in many respects. There are many more examples to choose from.

So Nerval, walking the dark and echoing streets of Paris at night, feeling the weight of centuries on his back, the gaze of gargoyles across his features, hanging from the Cathedral eaves, hearing the voices of the dead speak from beneath the ground in the Catacombs (victims of the plagues and dreaded persecutions), or from the bright stars in the sky - much in the same way as Strindberg would, years later - looking for signs from Fate or his ancestors in random events, feeling the approach of a modernity he could not hope to cope with; feeling time starting to accelerate, seeing faces blend into each other in the shadows, the voices and accents of different peoples streaming through his ears, changing, combining, metamorphosizing, his own dear Native language shifting rapidly into novel nuances he could not control; his confusion about his past, his ancestry, his parentage, coming back to haunt him or thrown back at him from the faces and imagined sneers of can sense the can feel his personality disintegrate even as he willed it to do so - out of, what? Despair at his lot in life? Despair at the 'modern sickness' - the absence of the soul?

And Nerval, who created himself, his 'image' and his very name (that basic data of identity) - or his double, in actuality - as a shield against the world and its bizarre, ever-shifting expectations, could no longer be pressed to reveal anything of the truth in his background: who was he if his true past and history were forgotten? And if these small facts, hidden shamefully away in the deepest recesses of his memory...once they were extinguished either by his death, senility, or a descent into madness - who would there be to say what he really was, where he really was from? Who he really was? Who could deny his claims to the blood of that ancient emperor Numa? A few electrons, spinning idly in neural pathways, were all that tied him to the truth, to the past, to History. How simple it would be to extinguish them and step full-bodied into fiction, as in a dream!

We read his 'Aurelia' now with a mixture of idle curiosity and patronizing seriousness. It hardly impresses - no, we are now used to rhetoric and biographical accounts that are much more sensational or horrible: but we are jaded, and we can easily miss the substance of these records. This record of his thoughts on madness (his own and that of others), his addiction to dreams, and the strange, halting, supposedly artless manner in which it is written at the instigation of his doctors, endlessly fascinates me. In the course of this work he starts on a pictorial/confessional description of his reveries and fantasies, but before long these fall away, his language becomes transcendent, and we realize that Nerval is hallucinating honestly, openly, and without reserve. 'So I am insane,' he seems to say, 'yet here I am lucid and powerful as an artist, I create still, you can not shackle me with your conventions or judgements - how will you assimilate that information into the way you view the world?' And Nerval, raving, foaming, stripping off his black suit of clothes on the streets and trying to climb towards the stars, who are calling him with the haunting, sweet voice of his dead mother, the Nerval who hanged himself from a lightpost - who are we to judge him? Who are we to judge the ones who we mangle in our never-ending race towards...what? Nothing?

U. Amtey
21 September 2000